• September 2, 2014

That Wild and Crazy Ralph Waldo Emerson

To the Editor:

I enjoyed William Major and Bryan Sinche's essay, "Giving Emerson the Boot" (The Chronicle Review, January 22). Playfully embroidered with verbal flourishes and echoes from the Sage of Concord's own time and posture, it was a clever and useful reappraisal of the American canon. I was surprised, however, that the writers missed what might be Emerson's strongest advice in support of his own booting. "Our age is retrospective," Emerson complained in the 1836 Nature—"why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?"

Emerson championed fresh, original relations with the world, and he was broom-hearty about literary housecleaning. Although he read widely and deeply, and quoted liberally, he admonished: "I hate quotation. Tell me what you know." Oh, but I guess that's one of those irksome contradictions.

In expunging Emerson, the critics promise that we will get rid of "contradictory, baffling, radical, reactionary ideas that offer no practical guidelines for actual human behavior." I assume these professors of American literature have read Emily Dickinson.

And then there's the problem of an Emerson gorged on "nature, God, spirit, reason, understanding, and virtue." Squeeze in sex for dessert and there goes Whitman.

But Major and Sinche's biggest issue is that Emerson is just not a good writer, that he generates "the prose of a crazy person." Well, I might be crazy, but my students and I enjoy some of that inconsistent, enigmatic, darkly obscure language that suddenly opens up bold and bright. His essays are as wild as poems. Nearly every American writer since the 1840s has had to deal with Emerson, whether to meditate on, extol, or fiercely challenge, or even to call him crazy. That says something. In my classroom anyway, the old wizard still raises hands and comments simmering with discovery, agitation, delight, and recognition at just how crazy we might be to believe in ourselves or anything.

I might change my mind tomorrow, but for now Emerson stays.

Henry Hughes
Associate Professor of Literature
Western Oregon University
Monmouth, Ore.

 

In "Giving Emerson the Boot," William Major and Bryan Sinche attempt to assert the irrelevance of one of the greatest American thinkers by using ad hominem attacks and failing to engage directly with his ideas and his times.

With a sentence as baffling and filled with empty imagery as any Emerson wrote, Major and Sinche claim that Emerson "landed himself in a cumbersome thicket," and that "what emerges is a bloated monster that has just gorged itself on nature, God, spirit, reason, understanding, and virtue."

It was indeed a "cumbersome thicket" that Emerson occupied—a young country, the beginning of the democratic age, the rise of a new generation whose dying fathers had fought and won independence, widespread obsession with technological progress and wealth but also with nature and innocence, and, in Boston, the awkward double heritage of Calvinist piety and Unitarian convention.

If Major and Sinche were to delve into Emerson's "cumbersome thicket," they might appreciate why his writing is riddled with contradictions. His works reveal several deeply rooted American and New England traditions and an innovative mind struggling to bring together some of the most contradictory of these traditions.

Emerson's optimism, which Major and Sinche dismiss as "rubbish," also grew from this "cumbersome thicket." Displaying the ego of which they accuse Emerson, the authors write: "We only wish that Emerson could have witnessed the 20th century, its brutality, its murderous regimes, its epochal indifference to life." Incredibly enough, the 20th century was not the only century with those horrors. Emerson was well aware of them. His intellectual fathers, 18th-century Puritans, looked to centuries of cruelty and tragedy as proof of original sin. When Emerson writes in his essay "The Over-soul" that man's mistakes and crimes are insignificant compared with man's beauty and holiness, he is rejecting the idea of original sin, which is remarkable, considering his roots in New England Puritanism. Emerson's optimism was both a radical break from New England's past and a continuation of some of the oldest American traditions.

Yet a careful scholar can see more than optimism in his work. Emerson wrote obsessively and adoringly about Nature, partly because he, like contemporaries such as Thoreau and Poe, worried that technology and materialism were spoiling the soul of America. Although Emerson embraced technological progress (which makes the authors' label "reactionary" inaccurate), he was painfully aware that this progress was quickly destroying the sublime American wilderness. There is a desperation in Emerson's "gorging" himself on nature, God, and spirit in the "cumbersome thicket" of rapidly industrializing America. And that makes Emerson's writings vital to understanding American culture.

Students and scholars can find the value and even the beauty of Emerson's work only by delving into the cumbersome thicket of his times and the complex roots of his ideas. Emerson does not need "the boot." What needs the boot is an approach to literature that fails to appreciate context and culture.

Rivka Maizlish
Brandeis University
Class of 2010
Waltham, Mass.

 

Comments at Chronicle.com:

I just had the misfortune of trying to teach "Self-Reliance" to a freshman writing class. As I read it before class, I had the same aversion and disgust the authors of this article note. My students don't need any more support for the already self-absorbed fantasies they carry around with them every day. So, in my class, we spent our time ripping apart Emerson's narcissistic fantasies and subjecting them to the scrutiny allowed by reading "The Souls of Black Folk" right beside. Let's keep reading Emerson—in order to neutralize his ranting.

anonscribe

 

Emerson himself thought that Emanuel Swedenborg may have been the greatest mind of the age, and (with due respect to the theologian) perhaps Emerson's own legacy in American studies will one day be similar to Swedenborg's. Even Matthiessen (in 1941) noted that Emerson's importance lies more in his influence than in any actual work. However, for those studying 19th-century literature, that alone is reason enough to study Emerson; one needn't lionize the writer in order to teach him.

exilium

 

Loved this piece. I've written a book on Emerson, and most of my articles manage to draw on him in some way, shape, or form. So you might think I'd be in a lather about the can of whoop-ass these two have opened up and dumped on the Grey Eminence of Concord. But there's nothing particularly untrue or dishonest about this hilarious piece. He sure isn't for everyone, and there aren't many undergraduates around—if there ever were—who can extract much wisdom from Emerson's many-forked prose. Yet Emerson is capacious enough to contain his own bloat, which these authors rightly identify. And, please, to the readers who are getting exercised over this article as if God himself is being criticized, relax: Emerson can take it. After all, he was nothing, he saw all, and the currents of the Universal Being circulated through him. Probably still do. And that would by definition include this dissing by Major and Sinche.

amcmurry

Comments

1. 11266911 - February 17, 2010 at 08:31 pm

It may be, as amcmurry argues, that "there aren's many undergraduates around...who can extract much wisdom from Emerson's many-forked prose." However, it seems to me that Rivka Maizlish's letter above is the best of the lot in responding to "Giving Emerson the Boot," and she is Brandeis class of 2010! It may well be that few readers today, young or old, have the patience to enter into the complexities and ambiguities of Emerson's imagination or those of his world.
Robert Abzug
University of Texas at Austin

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